Monday, September 30, 2013

Why Suppressor Legislation Is So Controversial

This interview appeared in the September 2013 issue of Western Shooting Journal

The Lobbyist for the American Silencer Association Explains

We had the opportunity to chat with Todd Rathner, the lobbyist for the American Silencer Association. He has successfully been getting legislation passed around the country legalizing the use of suppressors, which are also known as silencers. We asked him how he was able to get it done, considering there is considerable opposition.

RACHEL ALEXANDER Why are you able to get the legislation passed in some states but not others?

TODD RATHNER It’s a process of education. There are a lot of misconceptions about what suppressors do. There are some legislators who believe that the suppressor makes a gun completely silent, like what you see in the movies. Their stated concerns have been that it would affect or violate the tenets of fair chase, that a landowner will not be able to hear someone shooting on their property, and that a person could shoot an entire herd of elk. They are afraid it would lead to increased poaching.

All of that is nonsense. Those arguments are really a product of ignorance. The reason for these misconceptions is that Hollywood for years has portrayed suppressors as being completely silent, as if you can fire a high-powered rifle silently. It’s just not true. Part of the problem is that the original patent was for “silencers.” Additionally, federal law calls them “silencers.” So there is an expectation that they make guns “silent” when in reality, they do not.

The average high-powered rifle unsuppressed fires about 160 decibels. The best sound suppressors can get it down to is 130 decibels. That level is roughly equal to the loudness of a chain saw. It makes a high-powered rifle hearing safe so it doesn’t hurt your ears or cause long-term damage. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and others who have studied the effect of sound on your ears found that 140 decibels or less is roughly hearing safe. The goal of suppressor companies is to get it under that. Suppressors prevents ringing, tinnitus and long-term damage to hearing.

There are a lot of people in game departments who have misinformed legislators about what a suppressor really does. They assert that suppressors will make it so we can’t hear poachers, won’t be able to enforce poaching laws, and people will be able to shoot at night completely undetected. To buy into that, you’d have to believe that an elk or deer that can hear a twig snap in the woods, is not going to hear something as loud as a chainsaw.

Why would they say that? I’m trying to figure out what motivates these game wardens to lie.
They’re not conservationists, they’re preservationists. I just faced this in Montana. Jim Crop from Montana Game and Fish testified to the legislature that less than one percent of the hunters in Montana own suppressors – so my question is how will that have any appreciable impact on game herds even if they were a detriment to tame which they are not! He is asked if he has ever even heard a gun fired with a suppressor. The answer? No!

You can listen to his testimony on the Montana legislature’s website. Find the testimony by him there, it’s about 20 minutes long. Shooting older bulls has very little effect on the health of the rest of the herd. He talks about actively managing for more critters. That’s why you don’t shoot does during fawning seasons and calves during calving season. In the Western states, we have very strict regulations on antlerless animals. It is rarely permitted to shoot does. It is o.k. to shoot some antlerless elk. Regardless, sound suppressors do not violate the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation tenets.

There is no biologically based reason to ban hunting with sound suppressors. It is therefore 100% consistent with the North American model of wildlife conservation which has served North American game species and hunters so well for over a century.

The Boone and Crockett Club, an organization that tracks game hunted and shot in the U.S. They measure animals that have been shot, and enter it into the recordbooks. But they only track game that is shot if it meets the tenets of fair chase. So they don’t include game shot from a helicopter, with electronic devices, or if it was behind a fence. They are the ones who came up with the phrase “fair chase.” This year, the Boone and Crockett Club discussed whether an animal taken down with a suppressed firearm should be entered into their record book. They decided to take no action, issue no opinion on the subject, which means it is acceptable to record.

Old school game managers are concerned about what they perceive as new technology. Remember Internet hunting from a few years ago? Where you’d see a deer from a camera and shoot it. Well that’s not hunting, that’s ridiculous. There is an element of fear of new technology. That’s understandable when it comes to Internet hunting. But suppressor technology has been around 100 years. There is nothing new about them.

ALEXANDER Have you thought about renaming suppressors to a word that makes it clearer that the sound isn’t completely muffled?

RATHNER Some people want to rename them “moderators” or “mufflers.” We’ve talked about it. One of the concerns in the industry is the federal government calls them silencers, so it should be the same term. I like the word moderator. Generally once we get to explain it, people agree. Our biggest ally is a demonstration. We get a bunch of legislators out to a shooting range so they can see what a suppressor actually does. Afterwards they say the arguments against them are ridiculous and where do I buy one. For the first time in their life they can shoot a high-power rifle without hurting their ears. 

ALEXANDER How were you able to get legislation permitting suppressors recently passed in Wyoming?

RATHNER Because we were able to take legislators out and demonstrate how suppressors work and what they do and what they don’t do, educating them. We had opposition from the Game Department and the AFL-CIO. The union represents game rangers working in the field. We were able to cut through all of the nonsense. Once the legislators saw the demonstration, they were convinced. The opposition tried to make all kinds of noise there about all these arguments against suppressors.

One argument the opposition brought up was all the new ammunition coming out that is completely silent. We were able to show the legislators the new ammo, called the 300 blackout cartridge which is subsonic, meaning it travels slower than the speed of sound, eliminating some noise. The opposition said you could shoot a deer at 300 yards and they’d never hear. Well, even if that were true, and it’s not, subsonic ammunition does not meet the minimum power factor requirements for use in Wyoming, so it’s already illegal to use in Wyoming. Many states say you have to use a cartridge that meets a certain number of foot pounds of energy in order to legally kill a deer. 750 or 800 foot pounds is usually the minimum. We exposed all of this, and the legislators worked through and said we were right and the game department was wrong.

On a more serious level, this calls into question everything else the game department testifies about. If they willingly misinform legislators about this, what else are they misinforming them about? We pay them to conduct game management fairly. They ouught to do their research and be honest. As soon as game departments and legislators are educated, generally they are on our side.

ALEXANDER Who else opposed the legislation in Wyoming?

RATHNER I think there were one or two small sportsmens groups. The American Silencer Association, the NRA, Wyoming Sportsman for Wildlife, and Wyoming Gunowners supported it.

ALEXANDER Which side had more money?

RATHNER I don’t know that money is a huge factor in this type of lobbying. It’s not like traditional lobbying where they make huge contributions and throw big parties. This is more hands-on face-to-face. I talk to Democrats too. I kind of expect Republicans to vote for pro-gun legislation. We try to do a lot of demonstration shoots. We show them the truth.

ALEXANDER What other states are you lobbying currently?

RATHNER We’re going back to Montana. The governor there vetoed the bill last session, I believe largely because the game department lobbyists completely misinformed him. He will look at it again I sense. We’re working in Georgia, and I believe we’ll be looking at Ohio. We also just passed laws in Louisiana making it easier to take possession of suppressors. It was legal before, but they put some local hoops to go through on top of the federal hoops. Those local hoops are now eliminated.

ALEXANDER Any thoughts on the the omnibus bill that just passed in North Carolina and was signed into law by the governor?

RATHNER It’s interesting that it passed in an eastern state, yet not in Montana. Montana was a matter of misinformation.

ALEXANDER Any thoughts on getting legislation passed in Ohio?

RATHNER The American Silencer Association is growing very quickly, and more and more manufacturers, dealers, and individual owners are getting involved. They want to change the law in as many states as possible. We think Ohio could be a next step.

ALEXANDER Why are game wardens so opposed to suppressors? Are any in favor of it?

RATHNER I believe in North Carolina the game dept was the catalyst behind the legislation. They brought it to the state legislature. There are some game department managers that get it. The ones that are willing to listen get it quick, because they’re genuine hunters. We take them out and do a demo. I’ll go to any state to take the game and law enforcement director out to shoot.

ALEXANDER Why do opponents want to prohibit hunting with suppressors at night?

RATHNER We don’t have a position on hunting at night, we’re neutral on that. Every state has its own laws about hunting at night. States overrun with high populations of hogs like Texas allow night hunting. Arizona doesn’t. As a guy who has been hunting for years, as long as it’s based on science I’m ok with game regulation, it’s when it’s made based on emotion is when I have a problem. Feral hogs aren’t indigenous like deer, elk, antelope, sheep. Once hunting regulations impact the indigenous animals, then the laws need to be carefully crafted.

ALEXANDER Any final thoughts, what would you like our readers to know?

RATHNER I want hunters to know that hunting with suppressors is not crazy new-fangled new technology, it’s 100-year old technology, and will not affect wildlife populations it will only have a postiive effect on safety. It makes high-powered rifles safer.

A lot of us talk about hunter recruitment and retention. I’ve got a 12-year old and 6-year old getting into shooting. My 12-year old is going to go game hunting for the first time. One of the challenges of teaching a 12-year old how to shoot a high-powered rifle is the sound and the recoil. What do we do to solve those problems, we put ear protection on, which is moderately effective, since you still have hearing loss. And we put muzzle brakes on rifles to lessen the recoil. Well, muzzle brakes make the gun louder. But if you can add a suppressor, it will not only reduce the sound to a hearing safe level, but it will reduce the recoil. And there is an added advantage – if you‘re out hunting with a 12-year old, you want to be able to whisper to them quietly. You can’t with ear protection on. With a sound suppressor, you can speak with them all the way through the shot.

ALEXANDER What about the argument that you’re being selfish by protecting your ears?

RATHNER You could say the same thing about a seatbelt.

Editor’s note: Todd J Rathner of is a lobbyist whose practice focuses on Second Amendment and firearms industry related issues, as well as other issues related to 
individual freedom. He practices in multiple state level legislatures, which is his primary specialty.

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